ATLANTA - Georgia's Board of Pardons and Paroles has the final say on death penalty cases and decides when inmates are ready to go free. But for the past nine months, its two most prominent members have been on the flip side of the justice system, as investigators seek to determine whether the men used their positions to break the law.
The probe, by the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the state attorney general's office, is studying whether board Chairman Walter Ray and member Bobby Whitworth took money in exchange for political favors.
The pair has repeatedly denied the claims, saying they expect their names to be cleared when the open-ended investigation is complete.
But that hasn't stopped election-year calls for Gov. Roy Barnes to remove Mr. Ray and Mr. Whitworth from office.
"The governor appointed those individuals and should ask for their resignation," said Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah, the Senate's Republican leader. "Regardless of whether the criminal investigation identifies criminal wrongdoing, it is certainly a conflict of ethical interest to be making money off of your responsibilities to the state taxpayers."
The governor's office responded that it would be premature to act before the investigation is complete.
"There's an ongoing criminal investigation by the attorney general's office," said Barnes spokeswoman Stephanie Kirijan. "We can't interfere with that or comment on it."
MR. WHITWORTH and Mr. Ray have acknowledged receiving thousands of dollars from a personal friend and former corrections administrator who runs a private probation business.
But they say the money represents fees for consulting work, not payback for supporting a 2000 bill that would benefit Lanson Newsome's Detention Management Services Inc.
"They have disclosed everything that they did - the fees they took and what they took them for," said Pardons and Paroles spokeswoman Stephanie McConnell.
The bill, approved overwhelmingly by the Legislature with backing from the Pardons and Paroles board, allowed parole of some misdemeanor convicts to be supervised by private companies, such as Mr. Newsome's.
But Pardons and Paroles officials say Mr. Whitworth and Mr. Ray had supported the concepts in the bill for years before consulting with Detention Management because they say it freed up prison space for hardened criminals.
Documents from the Pardons and Paroles board say the bill will save the state $86 million over 10 years by removing petty offenders from prison cells and even more money by transferring some parole supervision out of the state's hands.
The Attorney General's Office and GBI also are studying other consulting contracts Mr. Ray and Mr. Whitworth have with corrections-related companies that do business with the board.
And the investigation questions whether the two used their influence to help inmates - claims that intertwine with the ongoing criminal investigation of suspended Sen. Van Streat.
Mr. Streat, a Democrat from Nicholls in southeast Georgia, is accused of arranging transfers for convicted murderer Ronald Gaither in exchange for political contributions from Mr. Gaither's friends.
NO DATE HAS been set for Mr. Streat's trial in Fulton County Superior Court.
According to testimony from pretrial hearings in Mr. Streat's case, Mr. Ray and Mr. Whitworth also met with Mr. Gaither's supporters and may have helped set up the transfers.
The pair of board members acknowledge meeting with a woman who identified herself as Mr. Gaither's fiancee, but say they told her only that he wasn't eligible for parole until 2006. They say they arranged meetings between Mr. Streat and corrections officials, but say they never urged any favorable consideration for Mr. Gaither.
"The attorney general's only official statement to Ray and Whitworth regarding their involvement in the Streat investigation is that they are considered witnesses," reads a written statement from the board.
Typically, the attorney general doesn't comment on whether any individuals are the subject of ongoing investigations.
Meanwhile, the two men at the center of the probe say they welcome any investigation that will bring the truth to light, and complained of media reports they called slanted.
"It's very frustrating when only one-half of the story is being told," Mr. Whitworth said in a statement released Friday. "I've done nothing wrong and look forward to getting back my good name."
Mr. Ray agreed.
"We have done nothing wrong, and we look forward to being vindicated," Mr. Ray said, also in a statement.
But critics such as Mr. Johnson maintain that the appearance of wrongdoing has already done enough to erode public trust in their ability to do their jobs fairly.
"The public ought to be able to have faith that decisions about the justice system are being made to protect them, rather than the justice system being used to enrich those who are in charge," he said.
"The public ought to be able to have faith that decisions about the justice system are being made to protect them, rather than the justice system being used to enrich those who are in charge." - Sen. Eric Johnson of Savannah, the Senate's Republican leader
Reach Doug Gross at (404) 589-8424 or email@example.com.